Scott Mercer | Crain's Silicon Valley

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Scott Mercer

Background:  

Scott Mercer is CEO and co-founder of San Francisco–based automotive startup Volta Charging, which offers a free electric-charging network in the United States. Volta aims to build the infrastructure necessary to allow for the mass adoption of electric cars and meet the rising demand for public-charging stations. Prior to Volta's launch, Mercer says, he had been flipping cars and had worked his way up to completing million-dollar car restorations in his early 20s.

The Mistake:

A common thread throughout the early days of Volta was [the struggle to find] that balance of self-reliance versus asking for help.

We started the company by coming up with a thesis for how the business might work. We realized it would pilot best in Hawaii, so I moved there and sat in a coffee shop for two-and-a-half months writing a highly researched 70-page business plan for how the company would play out for five years.

We mailed it to the three venture-capital firms that we could figure out existed in Hawaii and said, "Hey, this is the plan. Give us a half a million dollars and we’ll start."

Of course, that’s sort of an idiotic thing to do; we didn’t get $500,000, obviously. But by putting that plan together and mailing it out to those firms, we did end up getting a [long-term] advisor who has helped us through a couple of funding rounds.

I ended up designing and building a full-sized prototype of the Volta station and had it fabricated for $10,000 by a metal shop in Hawaii. I got it, put it in the garage, took a step back, looked at it and said, "Wow, this is [not good]."

Then I told local friends, “Look, I need to find someone who can actually help turn it into a product.” One friend knew a good mechanical engineer, and that was how I found the guy who was my co-founder for the first three years of the company.

We built the financial model and showed it to one of our angel investors, who looked through the financial holes and said, “This is a very comprehensive plan, but there are pieces missing. I can advise you on how to build a model for growing the business from a couple of people to dozens of people.”

That guy was Chris Wendel, who has been the president of Volta and essentially a co-founder of the business since 2012.

It's OK to fail at something; just fall forward.

The Lesson:

The lesson I learned is that it's OK to fail at something; just fall forward. Sometimes doing something yourself not all that well brings other people in to help you take a good idea and actually realize it as a true business.

It took a little bit of self-awareness for me to realize that you can’t be the best at business strategy and financial planning and engineering and operations.

You have to do the work to prove to other people that the potential is there. You can do it wrong; this will show people that their help could make the work better.

I think it becomes natural as the business grows that you continue to look for people who are better at more specific parts of the thing you’re building.

The resounding piece of advice is really having resilience and not trying to be perfect at doing every part of the project but being persistent enough to keep chipping away at it.

Volta is on Twitter at @VoltaCharging.

Photo courtesy of Volta Charging